Decompressing the experience of a lifetime

IMG_0172It’s 3:37am, and I just boarded an airplane to take me from Jordan to Romania. This part of my experience has come to an end.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

We had the morning to ourselves, as we were going to leave for the camp later in the afternoon because we had received special permission to stay after dark so we could see the impact of the solar lights that IKEA has donated.

We all piled into the two busses for the hour and a half trip. As we were driving towards Azraq we kept seeing signs along the highway letting us know how far away it was to Iraq and Syria – really driving it home just how close to the border we were. Interesting feeling – two countries you hear a lot about, but I never really thought what it would be like to visit or be so close to.

Ryan_Azraq sign

As we got close to the camp we could begin to see the shelters, all neatly lined up in the distance as far as the eye could see. It was quite a sight.

We were escorted into base camp… which had a dramatically different feel to it from Zaatari. As soon as we got into the Zaatari base camp it was bustling with activity, interesting things everywhere – just some interesting places to sit (airport seats), some decorations around it… I don’t know, it was just personalized.

Azraq – no way. Very orderly, nothing out of place, it just looked like a bunch of buildings all lined up. No one was outside, no one was going back and forth between the offices, nothing. Of course right now there is a much smaller population in Azraq vs Zaatari, but still… what a different. Around 10,000 people in Zaatari vs 80,000 in Azraq. My first impression was very orderly, but also a bit negative – while I don’t think a refugee camp can ever feel like home, this felt less so than Zaatari.

Ryan_Azraq briefingWe met with the camp director and the Colonel responsible for the security of the camp for a briefing, asking lots of questions, getting information on the current state of the camp and what’s coming up next. As a group we have become particularly concerned with the state of education in the camps, so there were many questions focused around that – why aren’t people interested in going to school, when it is readily available to them?

We were of course also interested in the electricity situation in the camp – since unlike Zaatari, there is none here. Everything is powered exclusively by solar lanterns and street lights – some villages not even having the street lights. This was very impactful.

After a very thorough briefing we piled back into the busses and rejoined our security escort to venture into the camp. Unlike Zaatari, there is no organic market that the refugees themselves have created, but instead a supermarket from Jordan that has been setup in the camp, which will accept food vouchers. It was a little shocking to see just how alike it was to your everyday supermarket at home – it had everything, though you can only use the food vouchers on essentials. You would need money for anything else.

Ryan_Azraq SupermarketA couple of people bought something, and I picked up a receipt as a souvenir (how often do you get a receipt from a refugee camp) before we took off for our next destination. It was explained to us that a public bus system is setup, at a fairly low cost, to allow the refugees to get between their shelters and the supermarket, which was interesting to see and another unique feature of Azraq.

Ryan_Azraq walk homeWe drove through a couple of the villages until we reached a recreation centre where we were told about an exciting surprise – there is a football (aka soccer in Canada) arena in the recreation centre, and to mark the one year anniversary of the camp (which though not really a good thing, is still worth marking), they setup around 40 teams to play – and there was an IKEA team!! Not only did an IKEA team exist, but they wanted to play a little football with us!

For those of you who don’t know me, I will freely admit to being useless at sports. My brother got all the talent in that area. But what a cool opportunity – of course I volunteered to play. Teams of 7, myself and 6 others from our program got ourselves on to the field and had a euphoric time playing with these guys.

I was talking to one of the UNHCR team about it and he said exactly what I was thinking – for a brief time, we forgot where we were. Totally zoned out – just two groups of people kicking a ball around having fun. Neither of us spoke the others language – we didn’t need to. We had a referee who spoke the international language of “whistle and point”, and the rest we figured out on our own.

Ryan_With Andrew playing FootballAnother fun surprise, the UNHCR Representative for Jordan – Andrew – who we met on the first day, skipped out of a meeting to join us, and decided to jump on to the refugees team and play against us! In case you don’t know, the Representative is basically President & CEO of the mission in that country. To have him join in, and see him interacting with the refugees really felt good.

As I was saying my skills are pretty limited, but in the second game I did make it into the net and actually managed to block a goal, so that’s my claim to fame. Some kids behind the net kept asking my name and where I was from, and of course I wanted to engage them and did, but I’m not sure they weren’t trying to distract me 😛 either way, no one scored on me – victory!!!

It did actually wind up in a tie after two games, against two different teams, which was wonderful – and after the game we met everyone, had pictures, swarms of kids wanting to be in pictures, and just… it was wonderful. It was the highlight of my day by far. The feeling was wonderful – I can’t describe it. I feel so lucky to have been a part of it.

Eventually they dragged us all away from the excitement and got us back in the bus – reluctantly, but we all made it. We went to the highest point of the camp and had the opportunity to see it in the daylight, taking many pictures of the expansive camp. It was a spectacular sight.

Ryan_Azraq overviewAfter this it was now 7:00pm, and time for dinner. We returned to base camp and enjoyed a lovely meal, and got to play with one of the Solar Lights! It was very cool to see up close, and I was incredibly impressed with it. The solar panel itself detaches and can be placed on a roof while the light remains indoors, there was the ability to charge a cell phone or other similar device, and there were three light settings. It could be used as a lantern or a directed light.

I quite liked it, so as we left to go back to the busses I hung on to it for some reason… it was at this time that I asked Andrew if we could do a quick interview with him for our video once we got home. Great guy – immediately agreed. But it was getting a bit dark.

Ryan_Azraq interview with AndrewWe stood under one of the solar street lamps but it didn’t provide quite enough light, so I gave him the solar lamp and he pointed it at the two of us. Couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it weeks in advance – what a cool visual. He answered a couple of ad hoc questions I came up with and was very engaging – I can’t wait to see the video.

We were holding everyone else up (oops) so we ran off to the bus right after (they weren’t going anywhere without Andrew, and Per was watching, so I wasn’t too concerned) to visit our next destination.

Ryan_Azraq at night with kidsAs I mentioned, the sun was setting so this was a perfect opportunity for us to see the solar lights in action. We went to another high point of the camp and took some great pictures where you could see the impact of the solar street lights, and then just down from there were shelters. Of course the kids picked up on our visit pretty quickly and soon came out asking for pictures, and then we went into the neighborhood to visit a couple of peoples homes.

Ryan_Azraq woman with PerAs we approached we were greeted by a woman who told us that the street lamps changed her life. Before they arrived she wasn’t comfortable going out at night or in the dark, she wasn’t comfortable with her children going out, and now she can freely go out at night to see friends and family, and live her life. It was touching that she took the time to talk to us – usually women are unwilling to have their picture taken, she wanted picture and video and was happy to talk to us.

Ryan_Boy with PerA young man also came up and had a conversation with Per about the importance of school in the camp – sharp kid, and he was so proud to have spoken with Per and just… I mean he was bursting with pride. He will go places. This isn’t a kid who’s going to sit inside all day and watch TV.

Ryan_Azraq home 1The first home we visited was of a brilliant man who made his own windmill to provide a bit more power for his family, especially during the winter when the days were shorter. Unfortunately some particularly strong wind had broken it, but he took the opportunity – or rather his wife did, to proudly show us a number of his other inventions around his home, as well as the kitchen the built along the side of the building. He was extremely humble, but his wife and son were as proud as you could be, and kept pushing him to show us more.

How amazing. Absolutely amazing. With no resources this man did amazing things. We loved it. Absolutely loved it.

We soon said goodbye, picking up a candy on our way out from the son who came up to each of us offering, and made our way to the next tent down the road. This one contained some lovely art, as well as, surprise surprise, some reused solar lamps repurposed as overhead lights generously put together by their neighbour. They also showed us several of their gardens! Yes – gardens in the desert. It was a very cool thing to see.

Ryan_Azraq desert gardenLovely people.

We made it back out into the street and soon found our way back to the busses, waving goodbye to everyone as we left. Though I still feel that Zaatari has more of a community feeling to it, my original opinion that this camp was very sterile and devoid of personality was wrong, and I’m thrilled to see the sense of community here. I think it is still very young, and will grow into a true community.

And that was our day. Day 3.

This was the last day of our IWitness trip, however tomorrow I will be posting a recap of the trip so stay tuned!